Blogging Politics

Ah! Comments! Every Webmaster Loves Comments!

Once again, the question of what to do with questionable comments rears its head in Rochester. @rachbarnhart recently posted an article from the @dandc about that paper being sued by Brockport police over what they regard as libelous comments. The heat is apparently also being felt by @roccitynews:

What to do about online comments – News Blog – Rochester City Newspaper.

Here’s a few unfortunate details about this issue that are worth pointing out:

First, I don’t think that lawsuits over comments have really been tested well, to my knowledge. Perhaps the D&C lawsuit will be illuminating or even precedent-setting on that issue, though my suspicion is that it will be settled out of court.

But if ever a case of “comment abuse” is brought to court, I suspect all of us who run our own sites are in a good deal of trouble. Because while I and many others including the D&C have user-submitted content policies posted to our sites, they don’t really hold up under scrutiny. The thing is: if you have content displayed to the public on a site you run, you are responsible for it. Simply stating that “all comments are considered the property of the commenter” is not good enough because they are not ultimately responsible for what’s being put out.

Even worse: imagine if someone did sue you for libel over what was being put out by commenters on your website. The only recourse for you is to go track them down, which might not even be possible and if it is possible, only by using means such as IP snooping. Yes, D&C commenters are required to login to an account. But how reliable is that account information? Probably not very reliable at all. I’ve been known to make up wacky shit just to amuse myself.

And speaking of amusing, check out this passage from the D&C’s Terms of Service page:

You understand that we have no obligation to monitor any discussion forums, blogs, photo- or video-sharing pages, or other areas of the Site through which users can supply information or material. However, we reserve the right at all times, in our sole discretion, to screen content submitted by users and to edit, move, delete, and/or refuse to accept any content that in our judgment violates these Terms of Service or is otherwise unacceptable or inappropriate, whether for legal or other reasons.

Didja get that? The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle has decided that, because it wrote something on a web page called Terms of Service, that makes it binding. They simply don’t have any obligation at all to monitor their comments – even though those comments are on their website – because they cried out “You’re it infinity! No touch-backs!!”

In the case of this little website, there’s not much in the way of commenting to worry about. Every once in a while, I get a few comments and I very much appreciate them, but I guess there is something about the way that I write that doesn’t invite dialogue. For me, then, the issue of moderating comments is only an occasional one and easily dealt with. But why large media outlets would bother to open themselves up to such problems is kind of beyond me.

Solutions are many-splendored and widely available. Why not double your pleasure, for example, by asking visitors to tweet or FaceBook their comments? A bit of long-tail action on top of absolving yourself from the responsibility of of moderation. There are also solutions that would allow you to peg site registrations and comments to OpenID, FaceBook and Twitter accounts. This does not remove the moderation problem, but it does give you considerably more leverage with your visitors who are now positively ID’d to at least an online personality that exists outside of your website.

There are many other options, but it seems to me that in a time when the entire news media industry is holding its breath and waiting for the next round of layoffs, allowing comment areas to become styes of hateful, alienating and potentially libelous speech seems like a risk not worth taking.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

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